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Tips for traveling to Costa Rica (or anywhere) in rainy season
When I heard that flights from Chicago to San Jose, Costa Rica were going for just $260 per person this Fall, I immediately called my husband and asked if we could go for Labor Day weekend. Despite the fact that neither of us has ever expressed a burning desire to go to Costa Rica, he agreed. What can I say - we're suckers for a deal.
We knew that prices were so low for a reason. May to November is rainy season in the country, but we figured "rainy season" just meant a few showers each day. We also assumed it would mean not just cheap flights, but also cheaper accommodations, deals on tours, and fewer tourists. In some ways, our assumptions were right on. And in others, we couldn't have been more wrong.
That's not to say you shouldn't consider a trip to Costa Rica, or anywhere for that matter, in rainy season. Just take into account these tips to make the most of your time during wet weather.
Know That It's a Crap Shoot
You could be there during one of the weeks when the rain is unseasonably light or perfectly predictable, with light showers covering the area each day in the afternoon like clockwork. The week before our trip (and, as this video shows, the week after), we were told, the area we stayed in (the small town of La Fortuna, at the base of Arenal volcano) enjoyed near-constant clear skies, warm temps and low humidity. For the three days that we were there however, it rained several times each day. It rained in the morning, it rained in the afternoon, it rained at night. Just when we thought the clouds would clear completely, they would descend again and obscure any traces of sun. One day, powerful thunder storms shook our hotel and we watched lighting illuminate the darkness through our skylight for hours before the rain finally reduced to a slight drizzle that lasted until 10pm. You might be there for a week of perfect weather, or you may wind up getting soaked like we did. More likely, you'll experience a bit of both on your trip.
Rent a Car
With such a short amount of time in the country, we couldn't rely on public buses or shuttles (though they are normally a great budget option). And since we've given up our credit cards (a move we only regret one the very rare occasion when we want to rent a car outside of the US), our options were to hire a private driver as we did, or to fly from San Jose to Fortuna. Given the torrential rainstorms we saw, I was very glad that we didn't opt to fly on Nature Air. We would have spent hours waiting for the weather to clear for our flights or, even worse, had to fly through the downpour.The small prop planes are scary enough to me. Renting a car is the best option, especially if you choose to stay in a small town like Fortuna. There's not a whole lot to do in town and if you don't have a car, you'll need to book organized tours to do most activities, many of which may be a bust due to the weather. Which brings me to my next point. . .
Don't Book Activities in Advance
We only had three days in Costa Rica, and we wanted to make the most of it, so we opted to book some of our tours in advance. We really shouldn't have bothered. By my rough count, there are at least three tour operators for every house in Fortuna. There was a tour agency on every corner, in every hotel, at every restaurant. And most offered the exact same services or trips to the exact same places at the exact same prices. And every single one wants your business. Waiting to book activities until we had arrived might have given us the chance to negotiate prices, and it would have allowed us to change plans when the weather didn't cooperate.
One night, we'd booked an evening tour to Arenal, our chance to see the lava flowing against the darkened sky. As we hadn't seen the top of the volcano for more than five minutes (on our first afternoon in town) in three days, we should have known the tour would be a bust and tried to cancel. Instead we held out hope. Maybe the sky was clear on the other side of the volcano, where the lava flowed. Maybe the clouds would part just in time. Maybe the tour guides knew more than we did, and knew that every night at 7pm the clouds did lift and Arenal was visible from the one place we'd be. As it turns out, the guides did know better than us. They knew that there was no chance in hell we'd see lava but that we didn't know that, and would still pony up $30 each to go look at a volcano shrouded in gray. After standing there for 40 minutes among a crowd of 50 people, looking at a solid wall of clouds, my husband and I were pretty annoyed. We realized that we should have just canceled the tour when we had the chance, and that if we'd had a rental car, we could have driven out there on our own.
Choose Your Hotel Wisely
My husband and I attempted to tough it out during much of the rain. We wandered around the town during even heavy precipitation, but when pouring rain combined with booming thunder, we retreated to our hotel, the lovely Las Colinas. I'd debated between booking a more expensive place with a pool or going for an ultra-basic hostel with little more than a bed. In the end, I'm so glad we settled on the $70 per night honeymoon suite at Las Colinas. Though we never saw the whole volcano from our deck (as the website promised), when we were stuck in our room for hours due to storms, we were so grateful for the extra amenities. We popped a few Imperial beers in the mini-fridge, pointed the TV towards the giant jacuzzi tub, and sipped and soaked while catching up on Spanish MTV and English-language episodes of "Keeping up with the Kardashians" as the storm raged outside. Had we booked the fancy hotel, the pool would've been wasted on us; had we gone the cheap route, we'd have been bored cooped up in our room with nothing to do. So, choose your hotel knowing that you may be spending more time in your room than you would have liked.
I'll be the first to admit that, while I have my city-trip packing down to a science, when it comes to packing for less urban destinations, I kind of suck. This is how I've ended up caving in Iceland in skinny jeans and knee-high boots, and how I found myself hiking a muddy trail in Costa Rica in 90 degrees temps with smothering humidity in jeans and running shoes. Rainy season means rain. It means mud. And it means you will get wet. Pack a rain parka, lightweight and waterproof or quick-drying pants, sturdy boots with good traction for hiking, and sandals with a bit more structure than my Old Navy flip flops. Ladies, definitely bring a dress or skirt for hot nights, but leave the heels at home. Don't bother with a blow-dryer or make-up (your hair will frizz no matter what and make-up will just run off your face), but don't forget extra hair ties, a hat, and an umbrella.
Do Your Restaurant Research
My tried and true method for finding a good restaurant on a whim is to look for one that is busy (and not just full of tourists). It's a strategy that has worked well everywhere I have gone, but in Costa Rica, it failed. Not because we went to a busy restaurant that wasn't good. But because no restaurants were busy. Every place we walked by, from the center of town to the outskirts, was dead. We never saw more than 2-3 groups in any given place at once. When we talked to the owner of Lava Lounge, our favorite bar, he said that we were there in the few weeks when the town was totally empty of tourists. He said things would pick up a little in the next few weeks, but not much. So, if you are looking for nightlife, look elsewhere. We also found that, as we'd heard, the food in Costa Rica wasn't much to rave about. We had a few good meals, but nothing stood out as mind-blowing. One waitress we talked to said she preferred to eat at home; the food her family made was much better than anything served in a restaurant. We should have asked to come over for dinner.
Accept that You Will Get Wet
The first night, my husband and I tried to wait out the rain. We quickly realized we'd be spending our entire trip inside if we did that. Bring good rain gear and resign yourself to the fact that you will get wet. We got rained on while walking around town. We got rained on while horseback riding. And we got rained on while zip-lining. And...we survived. Actually, we had a great time. The sooner you accept the fact that you are going to get wet, the more fun you'll have.
Resolve to Make the Most of It
This goes for a trip to Costa Rica or a trip anywhere around the world. Sometimes, trips are perfect. Most plans go smoothly, and the ones that don't end up adding a new, and often better, dimension to your experience. But sometimes things just don't work out the way you'd dreamed. In those times and on those trips, try to make the most of it. Sure, I would have preferred a little less on rain on my trip to Costa Rica, but zip-lining through the canopy as fat rain drops plop-plopped on the leaves around me was an unforgettable experience. And over the course of three wet days, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about traveling (anywhere) in rainy season.